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Duluthians trade boots for flip-flops and flippers

om Peterson takes a photo and John Nousaine looks for lionfish. (Photos by John Jordan)

In the Twin Ports we have to make our peace with winter weather, one way or another. Still, sometimes we have enough of the cold and a temporary escape to warmer temperatures becomes our dream.

On April 1, Duluth's Jay and Theresa Hansen led 12 friends into trading gray, snowy skies for flip-flops and sandy beaches on a tropical island paradise. Our goal: to escape for a week of scuba diving, fine food and good company on the island of Grand Turk.

Grand Turk is a 7-square-mile island, the capital of Turks and Caicos Islands located 550 miles southeast of Miami, near the Caribbean. The islands are actually plateaus on top of two underwater mountains. The ocean bottom drops off near shore to depths up to 7,000 feet, giving divers spectacular coral-covered walls and the experience of swimming over the deep blue abyss.

Turks and Caicos are a day's travel from Duluth, including an island-hop flight. The extra connection makes it less visited and more laid back. With crystal clear turquoise waters and white sand beaches, Grand Turk is much like other Caribbean islands were 20 years ago before air travel became easy.

Diving was excellent. For Tom Peterson of Proctor, a trip highlight was "the wall diving and the fact that underwater visibility was well over a hundred feet."

John Nousaine of Superior said, "I can't remember a nicer coral reef, virtually no current and short boat rides to the dive sites. It was the first time I had seen black coral or heard humpback whales."

Belongers, as island residents are known, number only 3,700. A friendly lot, they are likely to call out a hello as you walk past. English is spoken in addition to a creole mix of Spanish and African languages. The U.S. dollar is island currency, making the transition easy for Americans.

We stayed at the Bohio Resort, a scuba diving resort on the island's west side. Rooms are tastefully decorated, but "not a Hilton" as manager Ginny Allen was quick to explain.

Ginny and Tom Allen have come to the Turks and Caicos regularly on vacation from Montreal for 30 years, finally making the permanent move 11 years ago. Ginny told the story of one winter day in Canada: "As I watched Tom chip ice from our car windows, I said 'Why?'"

Temperatures on Grand Turk are in the low 80s nearly every day of the year. Gentle clouds may bring rain, but constant ocean breeze pleasantly cools the heat.

Restaurants on Grand Turk are few. Most of our meals were at the Quanahani, a beachside open-air restaurant on the Bohio property where meals were prepared by a South African chef named Jorika.

Further refreshment was available at the adjoining Ike and Donkey. "Ike" commemorates hurricane Ike of 2008 and "Donkey" refers to the wild donkeys that roam over the island. Two resort dogs, Amigo and Onyx, regularly made a half-hearted show of chasing the donkeys away from our restaurant, but their efforts were not so effective, to our great delight.

Nightlife was in short supply, but that suited our dive group perfectly. "Eat, sleep, dive" was our mantra. We had a total of 13 dives on the reef-topped wall during our week.

Corals and sponges in rainbow colors provided habitat for innumerable tropical fish. We saw hawksbill turtles on nearly every dive and enjoyed spotting stingrays, eels, octopus and seahorses. On many dives, humpback whales sang their haunting calls, unseen in the distance.

Non-divers might be surprised, but we most enjoyed those dives where sharks were seen. Not the vicious maneaters falsely portrayed in the media, our gray reef sharks were shy, avoiding human contact.

On my favorite dive of the trip, Duluthian Dan Goyen and I hovered at 60 feet below the surface for 20 minutes as two sharks cruised in and out of sight, hoping for an easy meal ... not us, but rather whatever we might stir up for them from the reef.

My travel companions and I declared the trip to be a great success. Grand Turk goes on our list of dive destinations we hope to see again.

John Jordan works as a registered nurse in Duluth. He enjoys shipwreck diving off the Lake Superior North Shore and travels annually with local divers to warm water dive locations.

Theresa Hanson and Katie Goyen of Duluth enjoy a safety stop.

Swimming in a deep blue abyss.

A hawksbill turtle.

Sunset on the island of Grand Turk.

Seahorses were constant diving companions.

Wild donkeys roam the island and hang around the restaurant.

Writer John Jordan.